Collective identities and transnational networks in medieval and early modern Europe, 1000-1800

Description of the research programme

Recent concerns about cultural identity underline the ongoing political and social importance of the question of how, and with whom, people identify. Changing and conflicting identities were highly relevant for premodern Europe. Paradoxically, the more powerful states became, the more their rulers tended to depend on good relations with their social elites. Since such elites often identified themselves primarily with local communities, regions or other group interests, the creation of (proto)national loyalties was problematic. Well-advised rulers, therefore, spent considerable energy on creating loyalty through patronage networks increasingly operated from their courts. New forms were added to traditional media for delivering political messages, such as pageants and spectacles. The wide circulation of pamphlets and newspapers gradually changed the nature of political communication, creating new forms of religious and political engagement.

Collective identification
In the centuries between 1000 and 1800, state borders certainly were not the primary focus of collective identification. On the one hand, regions within composite states continued to compete with one another, whereas, on the other hand, transnational trade networks often proved to be surprisingly resistant to political division and continued to tie together Spanish, Flemish, and Dutch economic and financial interests. However, by the end of the fifteenth century the horizon and the scale of operation would rapidly change. While the Mediterranean and the Baltic continued to serve as age-old conduits for commercial, political and cultural exchanges between East and West, between Europe, Asia and Africa, from the fifteenth-century onwards the world of Europeans expanded to include the Americas, African and Asian coastal areas. This would alter the stakes and the involvement of states, with larger parts to play for the Portuguese, the French and the English besides Spain and the Dutch Republic.

International politics

Cultural networks transcended national borders as well. Until 1520, Europe shared one dominant religion. Soon, the schism in the Roman Church would create transnational interest groups and streams of refugees while it also reinforced new confessional alliances in international politics. Süleyman the Law-abiding watched the rise of Lutheranism with interest; Francis I of France actively sought his alliance, an initiative soon followed by the English and the Dutch – which was also an expression of innovations in the field of international diplomacy.

Dimensions of collective identity
In this world of constantly changing borders, strong local political traditions, profitable transnational trade, and dense networks of international relations, ‘identity’ was never monolithic, even if a recognizably European intellectual culture, which played an essential role in the transfer of knowledge, religious and political ideas, always prevailed. The changing relationship between local identities and the centres of royal or imperial power was a key issue everywhere in Europe, from relatively unitary states such as France and England to the composite monarchies ruled by the Habsburgs. It forms an overarching theme in the historical research of the medievalists and early modernists at Leiden University. Currently our research focuses on three dimensions of collective identity. The first touches on relations between subjects and rulers. Research projects study the interdependence between local administrations and supra-local/regional elite formation; the tensions caused by attempts at political and administrative centralization; and the intercultural comparison of dynastic empires that rose in Europe, South-Asia, and East-Asia. The second dimension concerns the operation of diplomatic and commercial networks, fully including the important aspects of conflict and conflict regulation. Cultural identities and cultural transfers are the third dimension. Here, a major focus is on the way in which Europeans engaged with the past, through historical writing, but also through other memory practices. A major research project on memory and identity formation examines the lasting social, political and cultural impact of civil war on early modern identities.


Last Modified: 09-12-2015